June 14th, 2012

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Fictional While Female: the rape culture in fiction

First off, I am riffing off a couple of excellent posts on the subject by other folks. The first one is here, and here are a few quotes:

On the Great Wheel of Unfortunate Fates that writers spin whenever they need something bad to happen to a protagonist, there are several entries for men:

Losing a job or a source of wealth;
Getting hurt;
Getting scarred;
Losing a loved one;
Having a loved one kidnapped;
Having a loved one used as leverage for a threat;
Being arrested;
Being seduced by nefarious people;
Being betrayed;
Being watched by nefarious people;
Being lost far from home;

If your protagonist is female, however, there are only three:

Sexual assault;

This - er - yeah. I can see this. Going back over stuff I've read, watched, heard talked about. It's the character agency thing - men DO THINGS, and the things they do (active character) lead to other things happening to them. Women HAVE THINGS DONE TO THEM. This appears to be embedded, in a lot of ways. More about that below. Another quote - the quote that is being quoted here is from the developers of the Lara Croft "origin story", which involves... you guessed it... kidnapping, and attempted rape. THIS is what turns Lara Croft, Tombraider, into a badass. Here's what the article has to say:

“We’re not trying to be over the top, shock people for shock’s sake,” [says executive producer Ken Rosenberg]. “We’re trying to tell a great origin story.”

Picture the brainstorming session in which the new Tomb Raider game is being written. They want to show how Lara Croft got so tough. To do that, they want to tell a dark origin story in which bad things happen to her. She triumphs over these obstacles and becomes the badass that Americans know and love today. So what’s a bad thing that could happen to her? How about kidnapping? How about rape?

If you don’t yet get how reductive and stultifying that is, consider another pop culture icon who has a pretty dark origin story: Batman. Bruce Wayne’s parents are murdered in front of him as a young boy. After withdrawing into brooding, adolescent obsession, Wayne travels the world, studying with masters of forensic science and martial arts experts. He hardens himself into a living weapon against criminals.

Note that he doesn’t get raped.

When a writer inflicts one of the Three Female Fates on a woman, I can predict the next few episodes, scenes or chapters with ease. And that takes me out of the story. It shatters the immersion that a good writer should sweat to create. It’s a tired trope. And, to revive the argument that I set aside earlier, it limits women to a very narrow set of roles.

As I said. Reactive, all the way. Batman turns into the Dark Knight. Lara Croft turns... into a rape survivor, apparently.

Riffing off of this, another article, here

Here's a quote from this one:

Rape can place a character in jeopardy where the readers’ care about what happens, without necessarily taking the character out of the story. It’s a threat with implications, but not as final as death.

This is not a specific justification for rape. It’s a generic justification for all sorts of conflict, with the word “conflict” whited out and “rape” scribbled in on top of it. Just about anything can place a character in jeopardy. It doesn’t especially matter that rape has knock-on effects (as he goes on to describe in needless detail, in case it had not occurred to you that if someone is raped by their partner then the relationship – gasp! – might change somehow), because everything has knock-on effects. A butterfly flaps its wings, a man gets on the bus, an asteroid approaches the Earth – whatever.

When people say that using rape as a “cheap jab to get someone’s emotions involved” trivializes it, they’re not saying that having someone’s boring shitty character rape another boring shitty character in a boring shitty way2 makes them care less about rape. Their complaint is with the “cheap” part of that sentence. Sexual assault is – and I can’t believe I have to explain this – deeply traumatizing to its survivors, which is why I put that trigger warning up at the top of the damn post. Using it to generate some conflict in your boring shitty story trivializes it because you are making the statement in choosing to do so that what happened to them is unimportant, because your boring shitty story is unimportant.

Not too long ago I was involved in a writing workshop where one of the participants turned in a largely serviceable excerpt of a work-in-progress which had quite a bit going for it, actually - and to be perfectly honest, it is almost rare for that to happen at this level of a writing workshop where mostly beginner writers making mostly beginner mistakes line up hopefully with stars in their eyes to see if their words have any value or worth in the eyes of a couple or three visiting professionals who critique the offered-up pieces. The novel excerpt itself was fine - even, occasionally, touching on moments of more-tha-just-fine. The problems I had with this work began not here, not in the delivery, which this writer was clearly capable of performing, but when I hit the synopsis for the whole of the work which was appended at the end of the sample offered up for the workshop crit.

And in the synopsis... well, let me nutshell it this way. Our protag gets vaguely tangled up with a girl. The girl gets (yea you just guessed it) KIDNAPPED at one point... and (yea you guessed it again) subjected to ATTEMPTED RAPE by the Bad Guys in order to break the protagonist, get information out of the girl, whatever. And I came to a screeching halt, right there.

Why rape? Why always rape?

That writer from the workshop, in his synopsis, wrote of his female character being assaulted, and then of his (male) protagonist "interrupting the rape". But you see, there is no such thing as "interrupting a rape". Rape is only a sexual assault in the most literal of literal meanings. Above and beyond that, rape is a crime of power, not sex. The sex is a means, not an end. Penetration is more or less irrelevant, once you've been pushed into the process of being dominated by someone, of having your person mandhandled against your will, of being unable to help yourself at all. And once that process is entered into it's begun, and it is unstoppable. The invisible scars have already started to form.

I remember reading Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar books, which contained a particularly egregious rape scene - it was oh-my-god the classic, the innocent young girl taken by the Dark Lord and subjected to sexual shenanigans - but although this was very much "the trope", this is where Kay ended the trope and began changing this particular rape into something quite different. It wasn't just that she was tied up and nekkid and assaulted by a Giant Tool (in more ways than one) - Kay took that extra step, and showed what a rape was, what it could be, what it MEANT. The rapist in question didn't just take the helpless body before him. He took the mind. In front of her agonised gaze, he changed - changed into people she loved and trusted who were now here brutalizing her - into her priest, into her father, into her greatest love.

In Kay's novel, when his abducted girl was rescued at last, her friends stand there and gaze at what Kay describes as "the wreckage of the woman on the floor", and one of the other characters, a young man, an ordinary young man of no particular means of beating a Dark Lord of this provenance, looks up and says, "For this I will have revenge, even if he be a god and it means my death."

Because, you see, there were several things in play here. One important one was simply this: rape is not something that is done to *a single individual*. Rape affects lots of people who surround the victim. WHy do you think there are things like honour killings? Assaulting the person - and by inference the dignity, the standing, the social and cultural position of said person - is also an assault on her (or his, for that matter, but we're talking woman-victim here for now) family, her tribe, her culture, her society. Often the only way out is for the society to blame the victim and cast her out or kill her for the crime of being unable to defend herself against this assault. Rape is, and has always been a crime of power and not of sex - if it weren't then seven-year-olds and ninety-year-olds would never be raped (what's sexy about a wrinkled grandma or a prepubescent unformed child?). And we know that such women were, are, and will be victims. It also means that it is meaningless to start pointing fingers at how the victim was dressed (POWER, remember? A pair of jeans is no more a defense than the briefest of mini skirts or a pair of bloomers. It's a dominance thing, and it does not matter what the victim was wearing.) It hinges on consent and a woman who is actively fighting her assailant but losing the physical battle because she is not strong enough to outwrestle someone bigger and heavier than her or even a number of such people is not giving that consent, and neither is the woman who is simply too frozen with terror to attempt to put up such a struggle, or who has been drugged or otherwise intoxicated or passed out or simply made unable to communicate. Once again, the game is power. The idea here is domination, and consent is not required. But an inability to protect or defent such a female may be a shaming thing to the men around her, and so they choose to blame her for not resisting hard enough (hence honour slaying). Or else the men will respond like the character in Kay's novel, and vow vengeance, and often ride off (literally or figuratively) to their own destruction in expiation of something. But if it is used just as a plot device to trigger such an action a rape really is trivialised - because all it is, then, is literally the thing that pushes the plot forward adn the woman involved is and remains ever after a pawn in the plot chess game being moved thither and yon only as a set piece which serves as a signpost to further plot developments (especially if she gets pregnant as a result of the rape. Which in fiction happens often enough. Hey, another plot wrinkle. What are we going to do with this unwillingly pregnant woman and this child born of violation...?)

And if a writer DOES use it to focus the vision of a piece of writing on the woman-as-character, then it seems she is left with two choices and two choices alone. Either she can knuckle under and crumble and be a victim (thus circling back into pawndom) or else she can be "changed utterly" by it and turn into a badass queen bitch who goes out with an Uzi and a machete and mows down anyone in her path (and this, although it seems like she's taking the responsibility for her own actions, is almost as much pawndom and basic flimsy two-dimensionality as the other. I mean, really, is surviving a rape the ONLY thing that will turn a woman into a Ramboette?)

Our young writer from the workshop wasn't even thinking about it. When I called him out on the rape he did go to THAT place - that it was a "non-lethal" thing, that it was something "big" that would "change" her - but dear lord, aren't there big things that can change a woman other than being tied up to a bedpost and having someone have their wicked way with her? (And also, hello, in thi sinstance her rape really was something that was a plot mover not for her but for his (male) protagonist...) Why is "oh yeah, rape" thrown in just as a general reason for motivations and personality changes which the writer might otherwise be too lazy or too incompetent or thinks it is too much trouble to get into, especially if it's only a secondary character and oh hey it's an easy out...

The thing is, rape is NOT trivial. And yes, it might be non-lethal in some circumstances but it can be very dangerous in others - and in too many instances leaves the victim, as it were, on trial. But rape is a crime with many victims - a spreading circle of them around the single individual who has been assaulted directly - and in one sense a "literary" rape between the covers of a book also has that circle, the readers of that book. The readers who might well have a closer acquaintance with rape than an author who has never experienced one or been close to somebody who has and who thinks that it's okay to just use that as "an experience" even if it has no direct plot relevance other than just to give the storyline a shove in a general desired direction.

In literature, as in life, rapes and assaults will no doubt happen, unfortunately. But in literature they will happen as a plot device, as something "non-lethal" to throw at a character - which is all too often the consequence of being Fictional While Female - the author shies away from giving that female character protagonist agency in her own right so rape is flung at her at random just for something nasty to happen to her, or to trigger something nasty to happen to those close to her. And when the trap is sprung she then either overreacts, or shrugs off the experience in a startling manner as though it had happened to someone else entirely and is perfectly happy to be necking with the hot! young! protagonist! in the very next chapter without even appearing to remember, let alone recoil away from the thought of, somebody else being intent on pulling mostly the exact same moves but in very different context only a few pages before, giving the reader a bad case of mental whiplash.

Rape is not trivial. If it happens, in a story, it had better have a good reason for being there. Those good reasons are very few indeed, and you really have to make a case for one. Otherwise, can we just agree that it's time to start treating the women in fiction as human beings and not just a potential set of bones to jump when the plot going gets sticky for the rest of the story...?